Classic Computer Magazine Archive Article from Compute! magazine

Telecomputing Today

Arlan R. Levitan

This Fido's No Dog

In June 1984, Tom Jennings of San Francisco and John Madill of Baltimore began developing and testing an MS-DOS-based electronic bulletin board system (BBS) called Fido. Although Fido sported the usual file upload and download facilities, its electronic mail system was far from typical. Fido systems were not designed to exist as separate, isolated entities like most BBSs. Instead, Jennings and Madill set out to create a BBS that could network with others of its own kind. Rather than requiring users and system operators to call each other's BBSs to leave messages, Fido would routinely store and forward messages to other Fidos via modem in the dead of the night, when long-distance phone rates are lowest.

By August 1984 there were almost 30 Fido systems (commonly referred to as nodes by Fido fans). Since then, Fido has grown faster and bigger than a Saint Bernard. Today, more than 100,000 users communicate over FidoNet, which consists of more than 1,000 Fido systems spread across the U.S., Europe, and Australia. Using FidoNet, these telecomputing enthusiasts can communicate with each other overnight. And in addition to the public FidoNet, internal Fido systems are being widely used by private industry and government bureaus.

The sheer magnitude of FidoNet easily qualifies it as the largest publicly owned and operated telecomputing network in the world. Other attempts at nationwide networking via BBS have collapsed under their own administrative weight. But the organizational talents of Fido's creators and a dedicated inner core of Fido system coordinators and directors have been put to good use. Careful planning and more sweat than expended in a dozen NBA playoffs have kept the Fido network functioning smoothly.

Global Party Line

If you live in a metropolitan area, your local Fido is likely to be a member of a group of Fido systems located relatively close to each other. Each group is considered to be a local network. One system within the group is designated as a network host. The system operator of the network host is charged with maintaining a list of the nodes in the local net.

How does Fido work? During the day, Fido users can leave messages for both local and remote users. At about 4:30 a.m., the nodes within the local network begin dialing their network host to transfer messages intended for remote Fido systems. Once all of the outgoing messages from the local net have been collected, the network host compresses them to shorten transmission time, then starts calling other network hosts to send the messages. From 5:00 to 5:30 a.m., the network hosts dial up their local nodes to deliver incoming messages. Heavily used local nets often have two network hosts, one each for outgoing and incoming traffic.

Fidos that are too isolated to be a member of a local network are called independents and are permitted to forward and receive mail directly to and from network hosts and other independents. Regional Fido coordinators are responsible for keeping track of independents and encouraging them to join existing nets or forming new ones.

At this writing, the U.S. is divided into 12 Fido regions. Europe has six regions; Australia, two. There are 82 network hosts worldwide. Each host has an average local net of about 13 systems. It's interesting to note that the network hosts in Europe are equipped with two different types of modems. To handle local traffic, they use modems adhering to the CCITT (Consultative Committee on International Telephony & Telegraphy) standard, which employs different frequencies than our domestic units; U.S.-type modems handle transfers to and from Fidos in North America.

Managing The FidoNet

What's truly amazing is that the cost of operating FidoNet is very low when spread out over the entire user base. There is no centralized billing. The local nodes are at liberty to recoup the long-distance charges incurred by their network host however they see fit, either footing the bill themselves or by charging a small yearly membership fee to their local users.

The logistics of keeping things straight within FidoNet could turn into a never-ending "Who's on first?" dilemma if everyone didn't have a constantly updated "phone book," or node list, for all of the systems. Network host operators and regional coordinators are responsible for notifying the national Fido coordinators of any changes in their networks. The national coordinators, in turn, forward a compiled list of changes to Ken Kaplan, executive director of the International Fido Association. A list of FidoNet changes is automatically transmitted to the network hosts every weekend from Kaplan's Fido.

There's also an excellent weekly FidoNet newsletter, managed by FidoFiend Tom Henderson, that's both compiled and distributed via FidoNet, For more information, write to the International FidoNet Association, P.O. Box 41143, St. Louis, MO 63141.